Northern Ireland news

Analysis: US pressure unlikely to derail protocol legislation but then it's nothing more than a paper exercise

The US congressional delegation led by Richie Neal visits Stormont. Picture by Mal McCann

THE US congressional committee returns home today having spent the guts of a week in Ireland. Their message on departure is unlikely to differ greatly from what they said on arrival – if the British create instability by unilaterally overriding the protocol then, at the very least, the UK can kiss good-bye to a transatlantic trade deal.

It’s unlikely the bipartisan committee arranged their visit hastily in response to a recent escalation of UK agitation over the protocol but it was timely that they arrived just days after Liz Truss outlined the planned legislation at Westminster. The Americans didn’t so much park their tanks on Boris Johnson’s lawn, as move in with the neighbours and consciously make lots of noise.

The committee’s presence has obviously rankled unionists, who for all their talk of redressing the prevalence of the nationalist narrative in the US, continue to further isolate themselves by appearing thran or by picking petty fights. Meanwhile, anybody who dismisses US involvement by saying that this is none of their business, clearly has a poor grasp of history and geopolitics.

The visit also corresponded with the publication of Sue Gray’s ‘partygate’ report, yet another damning indictment of the Johnson administration’s arrogant and slipshod approach to government. The Tory leader’s response to the report illustrated yet again that he is interested solely in perpetuating his Downing Street tenure and will do anything it takes to remain in office. Yet this is the man the DUP is putting its faith in. The same person who less than two years ago said: "There will be no border down the Irish Sea - over my dead body."

But Boris Johnson is in many ways caught between a rock and a hard place. On one side Washington is warning him about the perils of unilateral action, while on the other the arch Brexiteers of the European Research Group are urging him to ratchet up aggression against the EU. Typically, he will talk out of both sides of his mouth, attempt to assuage everybody but convince no-one. Yet as long as Johnson remains in power, we are destined to be at the mercy of his vagaries, unsure whether the next day will bring reconciliation with Brussels or an escalation of hostilities.

Against this backdrop, Stormont remains mothballed, its restoration delayed until the DUP gets its way. Unconfirmed reports that the protocol legislation will be tabled early next month pave the way for the party’s return, not immediately, but potentially on the bill’s second reading, which could happen within weeks.

While ostensibly this week’s congressional committee visit lessens the likelihood of the legislation happening, it’s very possible the US will reluctantly tolerate the moving of the bill if it leads to a restoration of the Stormont institutions. After all, the UK government is expected to re-enage in negotiations with the EU any day now, making the new legislation nothing more than a paper exercise.

Some kind of retaliatory action from the EU and latterly from the US is only likely if the British actually decide to go on a substantive solo run, so while Washington and Brussels may appear affronted, they’ll merely indulge in a bit of shadow boxing rather than landing the killer punch.

If the scenario plays out in this manner then it will suit everybody’s needs. Boris will get to play the tough guy, while the DUP will get its assurances and rejoin the executive, but ultimately any issues around the protocol will be resolved through diplomacy and negotiation with the EU. That said, where Boris Johnson is involved, anything or everything could go wrong.

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